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Criminal Justice Watchdog Highlights Handling Of Attorney-Client Calls From Jail In Annual Report

New Orleans Criminal Courthouse.jpg
Jimmy Emerson
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Orleans parish Criminal Courthouse

An annual report from watchdog group Court Watch NOLA, released Monday, brought to light a program that stores all recorded phone calls, including some privileged attorney-client calls, from the local jail into a large powerful database that is shared with law enforcement agencies across the country. The program, called THREADS, is managed by Texas-based prison communications company Securus Technologies, which runs the phone services provided to people jailed inside the Orleans Justice Center and people living in Louisiana state prisons.

While Securus has long recorded calls from jails and prisons, 2020 is the first year that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office joined the THREADS program, according to Court Watch NOLA.

The Watchdog group is recommending that OPSO stop using THREADS until it can guarantee that attorney-client phone-calls are not being entered into the database.

A spokesman for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office says the concerns raised by Court Watch NOLA are “without merit” and states that it doesn’t monitor the conversations of “innocent civilians.”

About THREADS

The Securus website boasts that THREADS is the “only investigative tool in corrections that provides facilities with the ability to share data with other facilities and state agencies.”

It allows for law enforcement agencies across the United States that either participate in the THREADS program or that pay for its data to access the phone calls that are stored there. The website says investigators can use it to search for patterns, with features like, “Top Inmate,” which aggregates a list of the people living in the jail “with an increase in call volume.” It also aggregates people with a “decrease in volume,” suggesting that both are linked to contraband trafficking and use and that an “increase in call volume from inmates that have been recently incarcerated have the potential to coincide with intimidation attempts on witnesses and state or government officials.”

The Court Watch NOLA Report added: “Nationally, the THREADS program encompasses an enormous database of recorded prison calls, phone records, billing names, and addresses of those people an inmate calls, and scanned prisoner mail. All the data in the THREADS database is shared between the thousands of correctional facilities where Securus operates as well as any other law enforcement agency that is willing to buy into the THREADS system.”

One of the tools provided by THREADS is the “top contact” list which lists people that may not be in jail or prison who receive a high volume of calls from people behind bars.

According to Court Watch NOLA, in 2017 Securus’ website said that its “growing database already included the names and billing addresses of over 600,000 people who were not incarcerated, but who had at some point communicated with incarcerated people over the Securus network.”

The watchdog group is asking that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office stop using the THREADS program until it can guarantee that attorney-client phone calls are not being recorded and ending up in the database.

A representative from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office did not respond to WWNO’s request for a response to the Court Watch NOLA report before this story was published. However, a statement from OPSO reads, “THREADS is one of many tools utilized against street gangs in our city. Often, these criminal enterprises attempt to continue their operations in the jail. Use of this information has assisted in prevention of the introduction of contraband into our facilities, as well as conflict within the jail.

Any suggestion that THREADS is monitoring innocent civilians is without merit, and was included as an unsupported hypothetical in the recent Court Watch NOLA report.”

Attorney-Client Phone Calls In the Database

According to Court Watch NOLA’s executive director Simone Levine, the organization first asked OPSO to stop recording attorney-client phone calls in 2018. The sheriff’s department replied by offering to stop recording phone calls to attorneys’ landlines.

“We said that makes no sense. Attorneys operate on their cell phones all the time,” Levine said. “They give clients their cell phones. Lawyers aren't sitting around any longer waiting for a phone call at their desk.”

But, “with the onset of the COVID pandemic, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has allowed attorneys from Orleans Public Defenders and at least one law school clinic professor to have unrecorded and often free calls between their incarcerated clients and the attorney’s cellular phones,” the Court Watch NOLA report reads. “However, many private defense attorneys have waited to receive the same right, sometimes for over a year.”

The report commended OPSO for providing for Zoom calls between people staying in the jail and public defenders to not be recorded, but said it was ‘insufficient,” as some private lawyers have waited to have their calls be unrecorded for more than a year.

The OPSO website says it “allows attorneys admitted to practice in the State of Louisiana to enroll in a program which allows inmate telephone calls made to a designated landline to be non-monitored and non-recorded.”

The website does not provide information regarding non-recorded cell phone calls or other types of communication. In a phone call, a representative from OPSO said he would inquire about a change to the language on the website to reflect that the agency now allows for cell phone calls between attorneys and their incarcerated clients to be unrecorded.

“Numerous public and private attorneys have enrolled in the program since its inception,” according to a statement from OPSO, referring to the provision for non-recorded phone calls. “Last year the program was expanded to allow attorneys to enroll their mobile devices, and we intend to continue that practice. There was never an instance where private attorneys were treated differently than public defenders.”

In recent years Securus has paid millions of dollars in other jurisdictions to settle lawsuits over claims that the tech company improperly recorded attorney-client phone calls.

Recorded phone calls from the jail are sent to the District Attorney’s office, where they are reviewed. Court Watch NOLA has said that New Orleans DA Jason Williams has pledged not to listen to any attorney-client calls that OPSO provides to his office. But the calls must be reviewed in order to determine whether they are between an attorney and their client.

“If you have all of these recordings turned over to you, and you're listening to others, you've got to listen to all of them, if only to determine that you can't listen to them in their entirety,” Levine said.

Guarded Exchange

The report also noted that in OPSO’s contract with Secururus, the agency is able to use the tech company’s Guarded Exchange program, which provides for live-monitoring of the calls between people living in the jail and the people they call. It also includes artificial intelligence technology that is meant to identify inflections in someone’s voice and key words, which can be used to establish connections between the incarcerated person, the person they are calling and some illegal activity.

“These so-called “trends” are not subject to external substantiation before they are provided to the law enforcement agencies across the country that have bought into the Securus system,” the Court Watch NOLA report reads.

The report said Court Watch NOLA does not know whether or not OPSO is using the Guarded Exchange program. In a phone conversation, a representative from OPSO was not able to confirm whether or not the agency is currently using Guardian Exchange.

Other Notable Findings from Court Watch NOLA 2020 Report

Access & Safety

Court Watch Nola Deputy Director Veronica Bard called the recently released analysis the “COVID report.”

“We had to talk about how [COVID] affected the court system, how the court did not have a contingency plan that might have encompassed a global pandemic,” Bard said.

Bard said that New Orleans’ courts should already have a comprehensive emergency contingency plan given the city’s vulnerability to hurricanes.

The report documented confusing and sometimes potentially life-threatening procedures within different court systems in Orleans Parish.

For example, the Criminal District Court and the Magistrate Court denied public access to court proceedings on Zoom for roughly one month. Court Watch NOLA volunteers who monitor court proceedings were not able to view hearings during that time.

“Access takes center stage here,” Bard said. “Fortunately, we were one of the first court watching programs across the country to get access to zoom proceedings, some court watching programs are still fighting for that.”

Public access to bail hearings in the Municipal Court remained a problem, according to the report, as the court did not provide a link to those proceedings on its website or elsewhere. However, Court Watch NOLA was granted access to first appearances on Zoom.

In the Municipal Court, staff members were required to attend court between March 16, 2020 and March 20, 2020 -- when masks were not mandated. One Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Constable who worked that week died after contracting the coronavirus.

Failure to Appear Warrants

“With the closure of the courts after the COVID stay at home order, it became incredibly confusing for some defendants who were out of jail to understand when and how (in-person or virtually) to appear for their day in court,” the Court Watch NOLA report reads. “During the COVID pandemic, each New Orleans criminal court had a different practice relating to court closure and the issuing of warrants.”

This resulted in some defendants missing their court dates, at which time judges could issue failure to appear warrants.

The report noted that in 2020 the Criminal District Court and the Municipal Court issued a total of 62 and 314 warrants, respectively, for defendants who failed to appear at a hearing.

“And if you arrest someone, I would say that I would hold that police officer accountable and say, ‘Did you really need to make that an arrest?’” Bard said.

COVID Rates at OPSO

If arrested, those defendants would often end up in jail, where Bard said the rate of COVID was 40 times higher than the national average.

“To be fair, Orleans Justice Center was trying to get inmates out of the [center] themselves,” Levine said. “They had really been part of the initiative to decrease the number of defendants who were locked up because they knew the crisis that they were dealing with.”

But despite those efforts, in 2020, 323 inmates and 33 employees were diagnosed with COVID in the Orleans Justice Center.

Gun Removal for Domestic Violence Abusers

A state law enacted in 2014 made it illegal for anyone who was subject to an active protective order to possess a firearm. Beginning in 2018, those individuals are required to turn over their guns to their local sheriff’s department or to a third party.

In 2019 Court Watch NOLA noticed that very few firearms were being turned in. Its volunteers began monitoring how many judges were asking defendants if they possessed a firearm.

It found that in 2019, Magistrate Court judges asked about gun possession in only 13 percent of domestic abuse cases. In 2020 that increased to 60 percent.

District Attorney Jason Williams has agreed to not prosecute defendants for an additional gun possession charge.

Levine and Bard believe this will incentivize more judges to ask about firearms moving forward.

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